The daughter of immigrants, Sandy grew up in Congee Village, her parent’s restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Congee Village served up its own namesake amidst fake bamboo decor under a rosy glow courtesy of the carefully curated, neon, lights. For Sandy growing up in America meant doing something legit; becoming a doctor or lawyer -- something with security to assuage the blue-collar sacrifices made by those who paved the way. Yet Sandy struck an early penchant for drawing, taking her brother’s old notebooks and plastering them with stage outfits designed for Destiny's Child and Britney, betch.
As is the case for many first-gens, it took Sandy walking out on her dream to figure out that that’s what she was doing. Three years later, she has defined a cathartic relationship to her clothes by making sense of and immortalizing her quotidian experiences through cotton and leather. We chatted with her at Dimes Deli on a Summer night to better understand her unique design process and her love for Chinatown grandmas.
Reflecting on it now, when you said you could taste your brand—what did it taste like? There’s always this constant battle between idealism and reality and you really managed to fuse the two in building your label.
It all started with me wanting it first, I think a lot of people don’t even love themselves enough to dream that big... [My brother told me once], "Who do you think is going to do it for you? You have to believe in yourself so much to the point where you’re insane and not making any sense. You have to visualize yourself there already.” That was the starting point for me.
So where does the beauty of the process live for you?
I think it’s beautiful in the way that I’m approaching it... Everything I make is so personal to me. I don’t work with a team of designers, I design everything myself and everything goes back to my childhood or the neighborhood that I live in... The street is my inspiration, my dad is my inspiration, the restaurant is my inspiration, it’s just life, it’s what I encounter. It’s light, and people often put such a weight on fashion and at the end of the day, these people are just trying to make money and make it happen and they’re making cool things while they’re doing it.
You were talking about being inspired by your neighborhood and I mean just looking around right now and thinking about growing up here, I can’t even imagine that. Whenever I see little kids on the street I’m like, “what is your world?!”
Yes! When I was trying to figure out what my senior thesis collection would be I was like, fuck, I can’t tell anyone what I’m actually inspired by because they’re going to think I'm a whacko. I actually was just inspired by my grandma, my favorite person in this world. I feel like in a lot of Asian families, the grandparents raise the kids while the parents are going to work. [laughs] I was really into Chinatown grandmas and the very particular silhouette of their pants. Literally everyone is wearing them right now, but it’s boxy, cropped and crazy florals with a mismatched top, with a book bag or a visor. I was taking photos of them secretly and that was my moodboard for my senior year thesis. I found them really beautiful because everyone in New York and downtown is trying to be cool all the time but Chinatown grandmas are the ones who legit don’t care about what they look like. I was also really inspired by aprons because of my dad’s restaurant and the workers smoking out back and all the little, nostalgic things that I would encounter.
Yeah and the process must just be very surreal, like when you finally have your first press day or Vogue feature, tell us about the magic.
The magic for me is extra magical because I don’t have a PR team that works with me year round... I always think about that Britney Spears quote about how the first time she heard her own song playing on the radio she was going ape shit and that happened to me not too long ago. There was this girl walking down Grand Street towards Chinatown and she was wearing my fleece. I only saw the back of her but I flipped a shit and was like, “oh my god! She’s not even my friend, I didn’t even sell it to her at wholesale, she bought that shit retail off of some online store!” It made me so happy. [laughs]
Where do you want the brand to be or end up?
It’s not like my goals are aligned with the goals of other brands that have multiple investors and whatever. I’m learning so much more about the brand itself as I’m designing each collection and I just want to keep doing that.
Shop Sandy Liang here.